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Book Review: An Army of Davids

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Prof. Glenn Reynolds (that’s Instapundit to you) brews his own beer, has his own record label, and writes one of the most successful blogs on the planet. All of this is possible because of the massive increase of productivity in the last few years, placed in the hands of everyday people all over the world.

The great story, the great trend of the 21st century, is going to be the 18th and 19th centuries – the movement of society from decentralized to centralized, and back to decentralized. It’s a political trend that Michael Barone has been writing about for over a decade. Its most obvious manifestation has been blogging.

Reynolds’s contribution is to show how the widespread distribution of advanced technology has profound economic and social consequences, far beyond the minute-to-minute politics that dominates the discussion. It’s not merely that the big institutions are falling apart – it’s that the big centralized institutions are being replaced, or at least finding competition in, huge decentralized institutions with greater power and flexibility. The really spooky part is that you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

An Army of Davids is divided into two sections – one on trends that are already underway, and another on technology that’s just over the horizon.

Yes, Reynolds writes about blogging (including some tips on successful blogging). And he also discusses the irony that the only successful same-day response to 9/11 came from passengers with cellphones. That everyday citizens were able to react more swiftly and devastatingly than several large bureaucracies set up for the purpose has been noted before. Reynolds gives tips on how to make it work next time, too.

Still, I found the most interesting chapters to be on garage bands and Third Places.

The record labels have – as usual – missed the point. Napster was a diversion. The real threat was that music lovers would form their own community, and that bands would be able to bypass the big labels to get exposure. Likewise, the presence of safe, well-lit, friendly places with WiFi is changing the way we work, but also has uncertain implications for public speech.

At some level, the Goliaths are more like dinosaurs, but expect some to adapt rather than fight. The Washington Post appears to be trying to do both, using Technorati to turn the blogosphere into its comment section, while at the same time libeling Bill Roggio, who’s shown considerably more pluck than their own reporters. If the large record labels are the only ones able to guarantee airplay and fill colosseums right now, there’s no reason that capability, too, can’t be rebuilt from the ground up as well.[ADBLOCKHERE]

If the point of the first half is to make sense of what’s happening now, the second half tries to prepare you for what’s coming. Nanotechnology, feasible space travel, terraforming, are all on the way. And if you think you won’t live to see their effect, think again – the aging process may not be a one-way deal for very much longer. Here’s where Reynolds’s enthusiasm really comes to the fore. By the end of this chapter, I was praying for the anti-aging drugs to show up tomorrow, so I could get into shape to go colonize Mars myself.

To some extent, while the second part is more imaginitive, it’s also more limited. The effects of these technologies are much harder to discern, but thoughtful science fiction writers have tried. Reynolds might have relayed the more compelling of these. As it is, we get the following exchange with Aubrey de Grey, a leading anti-aging researcher:

Reynolds: What will life be like for people with a life expectancy of 150 years?

de Grey: [We will actually have indefinite lifespans.] Life will be very much the same as now, in my view, except without the frail people. People will retire, but not permanently – only until they need a job again. Adult education will be enormously increased, because education is what makes life never get boring. There will be progressively fewer children around, but we’ll get used to that…Another important difference, I’m convinced, is that there will be much less violence whether it be warfare or serious crime, because life will be much more valuable when it’s so much more under our control.

I’m not sure how de Grey squares “progressively fewer children” with “very much the same as now,” on either social or economic levels, but I suppose it’s a useful lesson that a brilliant scientific mind can be equally unimaginative in other spheres.

If you read Instapundit, some of the commentary will be familiar. Phrases he’s made famous – if not invented – such as, “a pack, not a herd” appear prominently. These serve more to remind you that it’s the same ol’ InstaProf talking to you, and the book is anything but a recycling of the blog, or even the TCS columns.

Here’s a book that shows what can happen when smart people spend time thinking about social trends, even when those doing the thinking are law professors. It helps, of course, if they’re also science fiction fans and futurists.

So Glenn, what’s your next hobby?

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About Joshua Sharf

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    Neat review – the book seems to capture the zeitgeist well

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

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